Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Making a Mockery of Disability

My friend Karla Fisher is a Senior Program Engineering Manager at Intel, an autism educator, the General Manager of a professional sports team, the mother of two thriving adult children, and the owner of the excellent Facebook resource Karla’s ASD Page.

On October 17, Karla attended the Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Karla had worked with the sponsors of the conference and, as a successful autistic woman, had written a piece for one of their books. She was especially excited about the prospect of attending the talk given by Tony Attwood.

I’m tempted to say that Karla was disappointed in Attwood’s talk, but disappointed doesn’t begin to cover it. In fact, what Karla saw and heard that evening was deeply offensive to her. Following is her narration of the events; the speaker she refers to is Tony Attwood.

The session began well with the speaker talking about ASD versus NT as a culture. I was happy to hear this opening. I also know that I had some influence on this perspective as I had given this to him privately in email and also through at least one of the clinicians that he works directly with. From there, however, the cultural perspective thing sort of went downhill. The speaker was dynamic, quick, fluid and exceedingly witty. Humor was his main way of reaching his audience and he delivered well judging by the audience who was laughing several times each minute. He was very good overall as a speaker. The problem was that he used humor about autistic people primarily and he spoke ONLY to the NTs in the audience despite the fact that he knew we were there.

An example of this is when he talked about how he knows when a Mother (or Father) of a child is autistic during the session where he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child. He said, “I have a good picture of how it looks when an NT Mother hears this message…” (and here he does NOT describe what that looks like but assumes that I will just know so I sit there with a blank picture) Then he goes on to say that he knows the parent is autistic when he sees the following… He stiffens his body up then and puts on his robot voice and he says, “Okay, so let me see if I got this. I need to see about OT, ABA, understand about sensory integration….etc…).” As he is going through this I am thinking to myself that YES, this is the good way to approach the information that there is a diagnosis. Facts will help the child and this person was seeking facts… But my thoughts are disrupted by an audience who is in full belly laughter at this person’s imitation of an ASD person. I found myself wondering what was so funny. Then I wondered if I said anything if it would not be turned around on me as not having humor. My heart grew heavy as I realized that these people were supposed to understand and accept me. That these are the people who are committed to making my life better.

Ironically, I was wearing the same black hoodie that I wore earlier in the week when I was interviewed and accepted into this key job at one of the largest high tech companies in the world. And yet the goodness of my new position and all the praise and accolades by my coworkers and friends was completely lost in the moment that the room burst into laughter when this professional speaker made fun of the “ASD uniform” (the one which I was clearly wearing).”

If I may summarize: Attwood was mocking autistic people at an event for parents and professionals who wanted to learn more about how to help autistic people. To put his statements in the proper context, Attwood knew that Karla was in attendance. In fact, he made specific reference during his talk to the fact that there were several autistic people in the room. He knew they were there. And yet he engaged in such mockery anyway.

I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh, Rachel. You’re overreacting. Mockery is much too strong a word. It was just good-natured fun.”

No. Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When you parody the speech and the body language of people who are considered social burdens, walking tragedies, and quasi-humans, it’s mockery, and it drove a tough 50-year-old woman who plays contact football to tears. You don’t do it no matter who you are or where you are — especially when you are making fun of people whom the world feels it perfectly acceptable to laugh at anyway. With your power, you put the imprimatur of respectability on such behavior. In this case, not only does Attwood have all the privilege that comes with being white neurotypical man; he also carries a great deal of authority in the world of autism. So when he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, to be mocked, and to be parodied simply for being who we cannot help but be.

By way of analogy, could you imagine what would happen if a well-known Protestant minister, in a public religious forum, satirized the difference between Christian prayer and Jewish prayer? What if such a minister gave as an example of Christian piety the Lord’s Prayer, delivered in a sober and restrained voice, and then, in contrast, put on a yarmulke, tzitzis, a fake beard, and sidecurls, and started rocking back and forth madly, mumbling incomprehensibly in a sing-song voice, in order to elicit raucous laughter from the congregation? He’d never hear the end of it. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith would be all over it. The network pundits would hold forth. Internet memes of every variety would appear. Someone would start a petition demanding an apology and his immediate resignation.

But none of that happens in the world of disability. Because the average person does not think that anything is wrong what-so-fucking-ever with making fun of disabled people. Because the average person thinks of disabled people as broken and therefore worthy of scorn. Because it’s still acceptable to laugh at physical and cognitive difference. Because disabled people are considered damaged goods ready for the trash heap, and anyone who thinks they’re worthy of reclamation and respect ends up having the same mockery cast upon them.

One of the most telling things about Karla’s description of Attwood’s performance was that he did not satirize what happens when non-autistic, neurotypical (NT) parents receive an autism diagnosis for their child. There is a stereotype of what happens, and since he was in the business of exploiting stereotypes for cheap laughs, he would have been free to exploit that stereotype as well. He could have parodied the NT autism parent as becoming hysterical, as believing the world was ending, as losing all hope. That’s the stereotype. But he didn’t. And do you know why he didn’t? Because the NT parents in that audience would have risen up in all their glory and shouted him down. And rightly so. No one wants to see their fear and pain for their disabled children mocked, even if they have journeyed past that fear and pain. People would have been irate, and some of them would have stomped out of the conference hall in protest.

And yet, somehow, it didn’t occur to him that the autistic people in attendance would feel the same way. He didn’t think about the fact that Karla Fisher would be sitting there in her favorite black hoodie, driven to tears.

But you know, this isn’t about Karla’s hurt feelings. It’s not about one person. It’s about her hurt being a signal that something in that room was very, very wrong — that the power relations were awry, and that the flow of empathy and respect were going in directions that favored some and mocked others. It wasn’t just about that room and it wasn’t just about Karla. It was about a world in which it is still acceptable to mock disabled people, in which it is still acceptable for people to laugh uproariously at it, and in which it is still acceptable for people to dismiss it by saying it’s just all in good fun and there was no harm meant.

Perhaps there was no harm meant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that harm was done. Harm is done by such behavior every single day — on school playgrounds, on television, in workplaces, in families, on buses, and in classrooms — for public amusement and for the infliction of private anguish. And when someone with authority engages in it, it only empowers people to go out and do it some more.

It’s not just autistic people who care about this. It’s disabled people. It’s the parents and friends of disabled people. It’s all of us.

This disrespect in the thin guise of humor has to stop — for the disabled people who are now here, and for the rest of humanity vulnerable to becoming disabled, through illness or injury, in the blink of an eye.

The fates may ordain that one day, Dr. Attwood, you are the person with a disability, struggling against the ignorance and prejudice of the world, and that you have to sit in a room and listen to someone mock your voice, your movements, your perspective, your pain, your struggle to speak. I hope you never have to go through that kind of disrespect. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

But imagine how you would feel. Just imagine it. And then stop contributing to a world in which it happens.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


    32 comments already | Leave your own comment

  1. 10/21/2012 | 4:12 am Permalink

    I am shocked to hear that Tony Attwood would mock ASD people in this way! Only yesterday I was searching for books on ASD to buy but I certainly won’t be buying any written by HIM!

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  2. 10/21/2012 | 8:31 am Permalink

    A beautifully written and powerful post. Thank you so much for writing it.

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  3. 10/21/2012 | 9:05 am Permalink

    I met Karla a about a year ago online, connected with another cause. She is a fearless fighter, in my opinion, when championing another. Thank you for being a fearless fighter as you champion Karla.

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  4. 10/21/2012 | 9:58 am Permalink

    I get it, I get it, I understand, from an anthropological view, why he did this, and I’m not under any illusions as to the level of maliciousness (low, probably) inherent.
    That’s not it.
    People are thoughtless a lot of the time, all of us, we make mistakes. But, it’s Tony Attwood, I expected more from him, honestly. These sorts of behaviours betray underlying attitudes, almost always. I’ve gotten into arguments, again and again, about how this stuff is really about how that person feels, underneath the shot they tell us, to placate, to appear civilized. Belittling the different, the disabled is still acceptable in most circles.

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  5. 10/21/2012 | 1:32 pm Permalink

    I am so sorry and so sad to learn about this. I too assumed that Tony Attwood was on our side,and that he “got it.” I hope that someone tells him how offensive his talk was to those he professes to support-maybe it will be the wake-up call he clearly needs.

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  6. 10/21/2012 | 3:50 pm Permalink

    I’m in shock. That someone who has been such a powerful, positive voice for people with Asperger’s Syndrome would stoop to such de-personing, disrespectul tactics is just.. my words are failing me. I think “What is this I can’t even” probably applies.

    This is the same man who said “You don’t suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome; you suffer from other people.” And now, Tony Attwood has joined those “other people”? – what is this I can’t even.

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  7. 10/21/2012 | 4:03 pm Permalink

    I thought I was alone in my response to his “humor.” Four years ago I went to see him. Many of us Aspies sit up in balconies away from crowds. We were all stunned to hear so much laughter at our expense. We all wrote our questions for Attwood during the break…He did attempt to answer it, briefly, blithely, like ‘weren’t we a bit OBVIOUSLY social inept,’ proving his point about NOT getting or intuiting intent!

    I was very sad. I spent several months researching humor. Even though I “get” the point of others “relating” to experience, it is at MY expense, and yes, I take that personally, because I have many friends on the spectrum.

    SO thank you for being honest and giving a great insight. Thank you.

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  8. 10/21/2012 | 7:41 pm Permalink

    Has anyone spoken to him about this? His behavior is simply indefensible and I find it incomprehensible that someone who is NT thinks that they speak for the Autistic community. An NT can only speak for their self and, unfortunately, he did and we’re all the sorrier for it. Thank you for your beautifully written piece. I hope he reads it and takes it to heart.

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    • 10/21/2012 | 10:37 pm Permalink

      I wrote an email to Tony. In fact I sent him my post/blog and the picture that explained how badly he hurt me. He is travelling so do not know if he saw it yet. I am hoping he speaks to me about it.

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      • 10/23/2012 | 1:00 am Permalink

        I’ll bet that you don’t hear from him, or if you do, it would be some sort of glib justification. You’re lucky you didn’t see his impression of an “Aspie walking”. I’ve heard that those who have seen him do it were really disgusted with him.

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  9. 10/21/2012 | 9:13 pm Permalink

    I am so saddened to hear this. I’ve heard such good things about Tony Atwood before, from people on the spectrum. It’s tragic that he’s willing to resort to such cheap-and-dirty tricks to pander to the crowds. The fact that he wouldn’t understand how hurtful this is to autistics in his audience stuns me… why are so many NTs so clueless about the feelings of the rest of us?

    Also, thank you for this post. It is clear and forceful and describes what’s wrong without resorting to name-calling. I’ll share it far and wide.

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    • 10/21/2012 | 10:38 pm Permalink

      Thank you for spreading the word. I do not believe that Tony is Evil in his intentions… He just doesn’t see from our perspective. He is not as good as he thinks he is and needs to spend more time with autistic people.

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  10. 10/22/2012 | 12:18 am Permalink

    Appalling. though i had heard such about Attwood from other sources. And I do not fit the stereotype, as I only said “And this is a PROBLEM? His life threatening vomiting attacks are a PROBLEM.” THe guy giving the label looked shocked I had not run screaming from the room.

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  11. 10/22/2012 | 1:06 am Permalink

    Mr. Atwood does not consider the ability of individuals with Asperger’s to approach a problem from an analytical detail oriented perspective as a disability, as he lists this ability as a strength associated with Aspergers derived from his observations in his Clinical experience with over 2000 individuals diagnosed with Aspergers on his public website.

    Others have attended his conference diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, a matter of public record that can be sourced upon request, that have felt heart warmed that he gets them in his conference as valued human beings and see the laughter of others as a celebration of their positive strengths.

    They report he does not make them feel like they are defective members of society, nor is it reported as perceived that is his goal in his conferences by those individuals.

    There is malicious laughter in life, and there is light hearted laughter in life celebrating the strengths in others, that might not ordinarily be observed. Yes, there is a stereotype that people discovering their children have a diagnosis of a disorder react in an emotional and confused way; however the focus here was on the strength of the autistic trait associated with a different way of thinking, described that is identified on Mr. Atwood’s website, to carry on his mission to make sure that people focus on the strengths associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, not only the challenges.

    In reading the comment from Ms. Fisher in her article, it seems apparent that she felt that Mr. Atwood was getting her way of thinking correct and could identify with it until the laughter started.

    Unfortunately, she perceived the laughter of celebration among those around her of a strength of difference, that other individuals diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome attending these conferences have perceived, as a malicious kind of laughter toward her on a negative personal basis.

    That is a valid emotion that she and a few others with Asperger Syndrome have perceived and reported from the laughter that may not have been intended as such, however it does not discount the uplifting nature of the comments and positive laughter that others diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome have perceived when the same comments were delivered by Mr. Atwood in his conferences.

    Regardless of the perceptions of laughter during the time that Mr. Atwood illustrates strengths in a different way of thinking associated with Aspergers Syndrome that he has identified in his clinical experience, Mr. Atwood is not mocking a disability, unless one considers those strengths in difference of thinking Mr. Atwood was illustrating to the audience as a disability.

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    • 10/22/2012 | 10:08 am Permalink

      Kate here is the thing that you are missing. It is a spectrum. There are MANY autistic people who associate very much with NT in the realm of abstraction. When Tony Attwood talks about how the NT feels but fails to explain what that means, these folks will know what he is talking about. They are more nuanced challenged and may indeed understand this humor and be “okay” with it.

      Similar to when black people were telling white people to stop using the “N” word because it was offensive. Some black people associated with the white culture and defended the slander and treatment by white people citing similar things.

      So the question is… Do we care that there are many who are offended because some can tolerate and be okay with this humor? Is it EVER okay for people in power to make fun of people who are marginalized?

      If you think that is “okay” than we can agree to disagree. The reason I care about this is not because of me. You see, I have everything in this world I could want. I have wealth beyond what I can spend. I have power and title in my job. I have two grown adult children who are productive members of the world. So when I leave his conference and cry, it is not a big deal because I know I can make the climb back after my self esteem is knocked.

      I work with too many kids whose teachers and whose caregivers do not understand them and who think that it is okay to make fun of them because they pick the wrong answer or do these “odd” things. These are the kids that I have to convince to not take their lives because they cannot make the climb as I can. For them I will speak out against your opinion on this matter and against Tony’s practice of this way of using humor.

      It is NOT okay. MANY of us are saying it.

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  12. 10/22/2012 | 1:44 am Permalink


    “Tony Attwood: Humor–laughter isn’t always ridicule and [?] It can be relief of emotions for the situation. The difficulty for people with autism and Asperger’s, they’ve been laughed at. And we often have to explain to children: “They’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing at the situation. With you, and it is the situation that is funny.

    Donna Williams: It took me a long time. I used to get really grumpy whenever people were smiling because they found something I did naive or endearing or whatever, and I would think: “I’m a serious, whole person. Why are you finding this amusing?” and they’d always say, “I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing with you,” which just made me more furious. But once I became an adult, I became quite a comedian, and my father is a natural comedian–used a lot of characterization. And he’s also quite bipolar and I got those genes, too. So it’s probably a natural way that I would communicate. But the fact that I love comedy means that I like to see people using humor. I think it’s a personality thing.

    Tony Attwood: It is. And I think it’s a very useful thing to get people to remember things. It is an opportunity for them to feel that they can…with each other are sharing the emotional experience. So that the laughter is a tension release mechanism, not necessarily ridicule.

    Donna Williams: Do you also characterize non-spectrum people?

    Tony Attwood: Oh, especially the British.

    Donna Williams: So you’re saying that you…do you give equal time to taking the piss out of people on the spectrum versus taking the piss out of people who are non-spectrum people?

    Tony Attwood: I think I take more humor at neurotypicals than those with Asperger Syndrome. I hope not to laugh at the person with Asperger’s. You know, it’s to laugh at the situation.

    Donna Williams: Um-hm. And I mean, if we’re all tearing each other apart, sounds like we all need a damn good tickle anyway.

    Tony Attwood: [Laughter] Yes, good point.”

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    • 10/22/2012 | 10:14 am Permalink

      And Kate you are missing ENTIRELY the very point of this post by Rachel… Let me reiterate it again for you ….

      “Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun.”

      I am not here to “tear Tony apart” or to cause him harm. I am telling this story so he can get awareness that he hurts people. Not just me but many others have spoken up in the various threads about this.

      If you still think all of this is justified and okay, let us agree to disagree on this one so I am not wasting my breathe anymore with you. I have kids to save and there are others who do not know of this side of the story.

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  13. 10/22/2012 | 10:35 am Permalink

    It really is this simple: If you are not autistic, and you use stereotypical autistic traits to get a few laughs, AND some (any) autistic people have told you that this is hurtful or offensive, AND you continue to do the same things, then you are being disrespectful at the very least. If you then attempt to justify your behavior by claiming that those complaining are too sensitive or don’t understand, OR if you point to other autistic people who seem to enjoy your antics, then you are showing the world that you care more about being “right” (though your logic is badly flawed) than you do about respecting the rights and dignity of autistic people. “You are too sensitive” is a very old derailment tactic.

    This act by Tony Attwood is nothing new. He has been doing it for years, and autistic people have been calling him out on it for as long. He has had plenty of time to decide what he wishes to do with the information, and he has chosen to continue going for the cheap laugh. I am not saying that he is a bad person, or even that he is always wrong. In this case, he is wrong.

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  14. 10/22/2012 | 12:18 pm Permalink

    I tried talking with Attwood about this years ago, and so have other people. Parents who think Attwood is funny, please consider how these sorts of attitudes permeate society and think about bullying. You can’t really have put-downs be OK, and bullying not. The post I just wrote has links to attempts to talk with Attwood by a number of people. http://paulacdurbinwestbyautisticblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/tony-attwood-aspergers-autism-and.html

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  15. 10/24/2012 | 10:53 am Permalink

    It now appears this incident has been an unfortunate misunderstanding.

    As of yesterday (10/23/12), Dr. Attwood has responded directly to Karla. It is clear there are two sides to the issue. It is also very clear there was no malice intended.

    For those of us that know and work with Dr. Attwood, we are pleased he has weighed in on what took place. We are also hopeful this incident is now resolved. As a community, we are much stronger together – supporting each other.

    Personally, I am hopeful this clears the air on this issue. Karla Fisher is an enormously positive influence in the world of autism. I hope someday to work directly with her.

    I have worked directly with Dr. Attwood for several years. And, like Karla, I can state, he has contributed enormously to the general understanding and appreciation of Asperger’s. As a parent of a young adult on the spectrum, Dr. Attwood’s insights have helped my family see the world (and each other) appropriately. We have benefited enormously from his contributions. He has enhanced our lives. He is a kind, compassionate man who passionately believes in the positives of autism and Asperger’s.

    Craig Evans
    Autism Hangout (dotcom)

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    • 10/25/2012 | 1:26 pm Permalink

      No, Craig, it was not “an unfortunate misunderstanding,” and I’d appreciate your not patronizing me, Karla, or any of my other disabled readers by saying so.

      Karla did not misunderstand the mockery of disability that took place, nor have any of the other people who have been present at Attwood’s presentations and have come away with similar feelings. I have seen Attwood’s non-apology to Karla, and her response to it, and I completely share her feelings. Attwood’s letter, along with Karla’s response, is here::


      I agree with Attwood that the people in the room were doing neurotypical social bonding. What he’s missing is that they were doing neurotypical social bonding as an in-group against an out-group. He fails to understand that mocking the out-group is what allowed the social bonding to take place. How he could miss the point so spectacularly is beyond me.

      And for him to respond to Karla’s protests by using a combination of “You just didn’t understand because you’re autistic” and “Let me psychoanalyze why you feel as you do,” is deeply disrespectful. This is 2012. There is no excuse for that kind of condescension. We disabled people are perfectly capable of analyzing our situations and responding appropriately, thank you very much. What we expect, at this late date, is for people to listen and learn — not to tell us that something is wrong with our perceptions.

      It seems to me that if Attwood knows that autistic people have encountered ridicule and abuse all their lives, he would do well to stay away from mocking us and igniting even more pain. But instead, in the letter, he offloads the problem onto Karla (and, by extension, anyone else upset by his performance), as though she just has to see it his way and get over it. This is typical of privileged, majority people. They often expect people in the minority to see things their way. They do not understand that people in the minority have a knowledge base and a perspective that is entirely different and entirely equal to theirs. So in the face of mockery, people of all minorities get met with “You just didn’t understand/you’re being too sensitive/you’re not being fair” and every other dismissal tactic in the book.

      In the future, Craig, if you want to post to my blog, I would appreciate your staying on point with my posts. Your comment here is completely out of kilter with what my post actually said. If you read it carefully, you will see that nowhere have I assigned malice, nor have I said that Attwood does not otherwise do good work. My post was about the incident at the presentation. Talking about how helpful Attwood is in other areas of his practice does not take away from unethical nature of getting a cheap laugh at the expense of a disabled person. If you want to comment here, I have no problem with disagreement, but it has to be focused on the substance of my post, and you will need to tell me why you think I’m incorrect. Saying that it was just “an unfortunate misunderstanding,” suggesting that by speaking my mind I’m creating needless conflict, and bringing in extraneous information that is outside the focus of my post do not apply.

      I agree with you that needless conflict does not help our community. I suggest that if you want to reduce conflict in our community, you start with fighting disability mockery of all kinds because, believe me, every time it happens, it’s divisive, it’s hurtful, and you will get people protesting it. We’re not going to stop speaking our minds on these things for the sake of false harmony. You want to ease conflict and create more cooperation? Good. Stand with us against this sort of behavior. Period.

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  16. 10/24/2012 | 1:33 pm Permalink

    In my opinion Dr. Tony has done a great deal to increase the availability of important information – and further to make that information reach parents and professionals. I personally tried to do an unbiased analysis of the situation. I am a member of the autismhangout forum and a blog post there linked here. In that site, Dr. Tony Attwood regularly volunteers his own free time answering questions sent in by the community at large.
    Knowing that he does that, I find it simple to dismiss claims that his main motivation is profit or anything other than his good nature.

    With his conference participations this may be hard to determine, given the perceived high fees (I also wonder how familiar people are with conference fees in general when they consider those high), and I think people that don’t travel a lot are simply not aware of the amount of time and effort required to participate in the conference circuit in the U.S. and Europe (recall he is based in Australia).

    In particular regarding the video interviews in autismhangout I believe it is easy to see the benefits to the community far outweigh what Dr. Tony may be getting out of it. I doubt he even looks at it that way, but from a cold business analysis the most he gets from answering those questions is some additional publicity (the videos also get uploaded on youtube). Detractors can certainly argue that this additional publicity could lead to higher book sales and conference attendance… But 1. given his career, I don’t think that additional publicity really counts for much compared to the huge amount of time he has devoted to it over the years 2. by giving this advice out freely he is no longer requiring people to buy his books or to attend his conferences to access his knowledge in the first place.

    I can only suggest to any detractors to put aside your preconceived notions or particular biases, take this volunteer work in consideration together with everything else and judge him only after you are well informed and have thought things through properly.

    I have some particular issues with some of the claims made by Rachel in the post but this post is huge as it is, if I decide to comment on those I will do it later.

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    • 10/25/2012 | 1:58 pm Permalink


      Nowhere have I judged Attwood or attempted to detract from the good work he does. I’m not judging him as a person. I’m judging what he does when he mocks disabled people. There is a huge, huge difference, and I am always very careful to distinguish between the two. I do not judge people. I critique what they say and do when I feel that what they say and do is upsetting, hurtful, potentially destructive, or otherwise problematic.

      I’m among the most well-informed in this community. I think things through very deeply before I respond, and I respond with more civility than most people. If you want to post here again, you need to respect that. You also need to respond substantively to the points I make, and not go off on tangents on issues that have absolutely nothing to do with what I’ve written. If you can stay inside those boundaries, you are welcome to comment here. If you can’t, your comments will not get through.

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      • 10/25/2012 | 4:45 pm Permalink

        Hi Rachel, my first post was not address to you, I should have been clearer about that perhaps but I did end it by mentioning I might go over some issues I had with your post later. I split things up due to length.

        I also think it is fair for you to say my first post was tangential. I agree, it was. But it is also fair to point that out of other posts made before mine there were some that were as tangential and you didn’t call them on it (at the very least one previous post is very directly comparable to mine).
        I also take issue that you go to say that my post has nothing to do with what you have written – I really disagree with that, as I think it is fairly clear in particular from some of earlier comments to your post that the character of Dr. T. was being questioned by some (even if your intention was not that this would happen, it did happen).

        Personally I believe that intentions DO count. You may disagree.

        My first and perhaps main issue is that you seem to have a different viewpoint from the one that Dr. T. seems to have regarding autism as a disability.
        Dr. T. a priori does not hold that position by default – as you are well informed you must know this as well.
        As such, even if he was mocking autistics (which should be clear neither I nor him think is the case), according to his own view he would not be mocking a disability. He would then at most be mocking a different way of thinking (I would still add that mocking a different way of thinking is in principle wrong, but it won’t raise nearly as much fuss as some of your other examples – and for good reasons).

        If you think all autistic people are disabled (which I assume is actually not your opinion), then in my opinion that is a bigger problem than the issue you have with Dr. T. usage of humour.
        I would personally rather you stop using “disabled people” when referring to autistics (and I’m not alone in this), it is not accurate and I really don’t think it is appropriate; I honestly think it stereotypes much more (and negatively) than the actions you object to.
        But despite that, if you don’t stop using that terminology I won’t make a big fuss about it. I know full well you can’t please everyone, and I am convinced your intentions are good and that you use the term because you feel it communicates your messages better. You don’t think you are mocking autistics by doing so and neither do I. I don’t think Dr. T. using humour is mocking autistics and neither does he.

        Next I would like to cover your flawed comparisons to mockery of religious beliefs. You are probably aware that there are many people (atheists?) actively mocking religious beliefs and people actually don’t get so fussed about that – see the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or lots of people declaring “Jedi” as their religion in some countries official polls.
        Your comparison with religion also fails on another important level because in your examples you implicitly built in stereotyping and I therefore consider it a strawman.
        I would like to know what you think of the following more direct comparison that hopefully avoids being a strawman…
        I spot someone wearing a crucifix (a specific behaviour) and I “diagnose” that person as a Christian (I probably made an accurate guess). I mention my method to a parent of a Christian: “I know someone is a Christian when I see they are wearing a crucifix”. He laughs. I hold that doing so is not mocking Christians, and that in general reasonable people would not be offended at my guess / “diagnostic” or that my commend made the parent of a Christian laugh.
        If instead I said “all Christians wear a crucifix” then that is stereotyping and it would be a different story.

        As far as Karla’s and your account of the situation goes, Dr. T. states (paraphrased) “I know one parent is autistic if he (…)”. (…) is not “wears a crucifix” but some other specific behaviours. I hope you agree this directly compares to my example with the crucifix.
        Dr. T. is apparently an expert at diagnosis (he may do some research but he seems above all to be a clinician) – he knows full well that autistics are extremely diverse, say, as diverse as NTs (more?) and not all autistic parents will react that way. He is making a good informed guess that very few non-autistic parents would react that particular way and using that to identify them. Surely that is not mocking nor stereotyping and it is certainly. He is NOT stating that all autistic parents will react that way. At most he is stereotyping NTs as he is establishing very few of them would react in such a logical way!

        This very much follows into how very telling it is that Karla herself did not feel offended until the audience started laughing. Dr. T.’s description after all was quite accurate for perhaps a majority of autistics (though not all).
        When you look at it from a specific way, you may even conclude he is simply presenting a more memorable (in the full meaning of that word), exemplified version of what essentially amounts to some of the diagnostic criteria. He does it that way because he wants people to remember the information he is conveying.

        The final big issue I have with your post is very well illustrated in the following sentence:
        “It’s not just autistic people who care about this. It’s disabled people. It’s the parents and friends of disabled people. It’s all of us.”
        You obviously don’t speak for everyone. In particular you don’t speak for me, and you don’t speak for the people in these conferences that were laughing. Most of those people apparently are parents of autistic people (I rather not use “disabled people” myself).
        THOSE are parents of autistic people that DO CARE and DO OBJECT when autistics really are mocked and bullied (given your sentence above you agree with me on this) were THERE… If Dr. T. really WAS mocking autistics and being a bully, they wouldn’t be laughing along! You should reconsider your view if only due to this very point…
        Otherwise you are not being consistent. You can be consistent and be wrong, but you can not be inconsistent and be right. At the very least you should retract the sentence I quote at the start of this paragraph.

        Finally, you state that Dr. T. is being condescending saying “Karla didn’t understand”, but Karla herself admits her lack of understanding as she only became offended with Dr. T. when the other people laugh.
        Also, if Dr. T. is being condescending I ask what are you being when you say that I and all those parents at the conference that laughed are the ones that don’t understand?

        I DO respect your intelligence, and I DO respect your opinion (I think it is wrong but respect it) – otherwise I wouldn’t waste my time with such a long post. Please, even if you continue to think I’m wrong, extend the same respect to my opinion, and to the opinion of Dr. T. You have your reasons, but so do we.

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        • 10/25/2012 | 6:02 pm Permalink

          First of all, Ivo, this is my blog. If you’re going to respond to something I wrote, address me directly, not in the third person. And if you’re going to address what another commenter has written, please have the respect to address them directly as well.

          Second of all, on my blog, I will be the judge of what’s tangential, not you. In fact, I will be the judge of what I answer and what I don’t. If you give me trouble about that again, you will be banned. I am very busy, and my time and my energy are limited. If you don’t like what I allow here and how I respond, you are welcome to move on.

          Third, whether you call autism a disability or a different way of thinking really doesn’t matter. The point is that Attwood was mocking people who are members of a vulnerable, stigmatized, marginalized minority. It’s not even remotely close to saying “I know someone is a Christian when I see they are wearing a crucifix.” That is not analogous to what Attwood did, at all, for reasons too numerous to list in a comment. The main one is that he didn’t say “I know that someone is autistic when I see them engage in repetitive patterns, have difficulty with expressive and receptive language, and indulge in special interests.” He did an impersonation. Of a vulnerable minority. To get a laugh. That is exactly analogous to a Christian doing an impersonation of a Jew to get a laugh. I know this because I am a Jew and I know how it feels. I’ve been there when someone did exactly that. It was humiliating. And it’s not because there is something wrong with me or my perceptions; it’s because there was something wrong with the action itself. Talk to any minority person. They will tell you the same thing. It does not matter what the intent is. What matters is the impact.

          Moreover, it really doesn’t matter whether all or some or most autistics talk in a robotic voice, or stiffen their bodies when they talk. For a non-autistic person to do that in front of a non-autistic audience is to impersonate people in order to get a laugh. That was its purpose. Its purpose was not clinical. Its purpose was to engender laughter. It’s exactly the same as if he were at a conference on cerebral palsy, and he got a laugh by limping across the stage and pretending to drool. Would the impersonation be accurate? For some people with CP, it would. Would it be mockery? Yes. Because context is everything. If you’re doing it in a context in which majority people are laughing at vulnerable minority people because of who they are and how their bodies work or look, it’s mockery. It’s practically the definition of mockery.

          Finally, I did not say that all disabled people, all autistic people, and all parents feel the same way. I said that there are people in each group who feel that way, and the “all” referred to the fact that there are people from each group who do. You would do well to familiarize yourself with my other writing, because you will see that I protest very strongly against overgeneralization whenever I see it. So please don’t accuse me of the very thing I take care not to do. If you are unclear about my meaning, please ask. Making assumptions, when you’re not familiar with a person’s work, is never a good idea.

          The bottom line is that I do not know any disabled person who enjoys being mocked. And if tomorrow you find me a disabled person who says they just couldn’t care less, it really wouldn’t change a thing. When it comes to people who are bullied and mocked on a daily basis, mockery is wrong. It leads to very, very bad outcomes, and it needs to stop.

          The fact is, the people who get to say what’s mockery and what’s not are the targets of the mockery. Period. I can be an ally to African American people all day, every day, but I still do not get to decide whether or not something that concerns them is offensive. I have white skin. I do not deal with racism. They do. And when they talk about what’s offensive, then I listen and I take my cues from them, and I do not tell them that they have nothing to be upset about. They will be the judge of that, because it concerns them, not me.

          If you don’t agree with that stance, then we really have no common ground here, and there is no point in continuing this conversation. If you’re going to keep insisting that Attwood wasn’t mocking us, I’m not going to keep this discussion going, because it will be a waste of time for both of us. We will need to agree to disagree and wish each other well.

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  17. 10/25/2012 | 2:19 pm Permalink

    it’s not a simple misunderstanding, but i don’t have much hope that someone that thinks it is will ever understand how to say ‘sorry, i understand why what i did was wrong, and i wouldn’t do that again. thanks for explaining your perspective to me”.
    sometimes, people, you screw up. you just need to be able to be humble, and genuinely say you messed up. there aren’t a lot of other palatable responses.

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  18. 10/25/2012 | 9:43 pm Permalink

    Wow. Just wow. I can’t decide what is worse: that Tony Attwood mocked the people he is supposed to be helping or that people are actually defending him. Ivo, if you are a parent of a child with autism, I am really shocked you would not just defend Attwood, but that you would tell autistic adults that they are wrong for having their feelings hurt.

    Rachel is right: Attwood did an impersonation. For a laugh. That offends me. If I saw someone impersonating my son, I would be furious. But what would be worse is if people claimed he was wrong for being hurt by such mockery.

    You can argue that Attwood’s intentions were pure, but his reply to Karla proves that he has no respect for the people he is supposedly helping. It’s one thing to be inconsiderate and make jokes at someone’s expense unknowingly (it’s not right, but people are stupid sometimes, though I would argue that Attwood, of all people, should know better) but once it was called to his attention, Attwood should have apologized sincerely. And he should have promised that he would make every effort to avoid such bad behavior in the future. Instead, he blamed the victim. And to me, that shows his true beliefs and feelings. It doesn’t matter what his intentions were, really. But I would say if his intentions were in fact pure, he would feel mortified at discovering he hurt people. That he thinks he did nothing wrong disturbs me even more than his mockery.

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  19. 10/27/2012 | 1:11 am Permalink

    I think I have been VERY light in my reports about the Tony presentation. Let me elaborate a little bit more as people are not getting the “right” bigger picture. Here is how the presentation day went…

    1. Sets up the joke with a story line that includes an NT and an ASD person. He either says nothing about the NT or he sets up the NT to be the good guy.
    2. Brings in the punch line by either imitating or otherwise telling about an autistic perspective (from his experience) <—— Here is where I think that this is just like me and how I think.
    3. The entire room is now laughing at Tony's imitation of autistic people.

    It repeats over and over and over. Throughout the whole day the room is laughing at how I exactly feel and would act in the scenario he just set up. He made 1 joke about Britts and 2 about NTs. Other than that it was all out laughing at autistic people.

    Example no. 2: At one point Tony talks about a married ASD couple. He talks about how they are in their house at night quietly reading and the neighbor stops by to bring them some nice snack and introduce himself (<—- here the NT neighbor is set up as the "good" guy offering gifts and introduction). Then Tony gets into his "acting mode" and gets wild eyed and starts to freak out as he explains… The ASD couple are quickly running through the house turning off the lights and ducking behind the chairs. Tony ducks behind the podium to act out the bit. (<—— sets ASD couple up as the assholes at worst, a stereotype at best) At this moment the entire room is laughing validating that this behavior is NOT okay by any sort of social standard.

    Example no 3. Additionally he makes little quips throughout that further perpetuates stereotypes or just plain is meant to hurt. Like about the time he talked to this one guy that he met and he knew he was Aspie because he was wearing the "Aspie uniform" (then he describes the uniform.) <—– Again the room busts out laughing. It is the same clothing that I and 2 other people were wearing.

    Example no. 4. All throughout the day Tony kept telling the room about how all Aspies are genius as he pointed over and over again to Bill Gates, Einstein and many other completely not diagnosised yet profoundly gifted people. This is one of those stereotypes that really hurt autistic people as a whole. YES, there are a select percentage of autistic people who are very smart and will be able to have lucrative careers in high tech and science BUT not most autistic people. Autistic people like NT people come in all manners of abilities and IQ. Let's say that you are a housewife. How would you feel if you went to a presentation about women and at that presentation the speaker ONLY gave kudos to the women who had exceptional careers and did not validate you as a woman? I see so many autistics who are very slighted by this stereotype. Temple Grandin is also aware of how negative and bad this is and is why I was the only "techie" that she allowed in her latest book. It hurts us as a people to have these sterotypes.

    I could go on and on…. It was pretty amazingly bad in a lot of ways.

    His non apology was patronizing and condescending.

    Not saying that everything he does is bad and I actually like the work he does on Autism Hangout. That said Tony needs to learn a few things about us before he can be ALLY.

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  20. 11/5/2012 | 11:39 am Permalink

    I attended an autism-themed conference with Isabelle Hénault as main speaker, a couple of weeks ago.

    Much was said about autistic people’s peculiarities and difficulties they face in society. The word “They” was used in almost every other sentence. Audience’s response was almost the same as described in Atwood’s performance. Full comedic laughter, as if watching Mr. Bean, or similar movie.

    At some parts, I was almost literally in pain when listening to the series of descriptions of all the possible (not TYPICAL, but let’s get prepared for the worst, just in case) ways living with autistic people can go wrong, and terribly wrong… And watching one, certainly fully well-meaning girl, sitting next to me, writing those things down into a notebook. At one point, I couldn’t resist and said to her: “Don’t write that down, it’s totally NOT like that!”. She did anyway, right before my eyes. The horror.

    Bottom Line: Isabelle’s lecture might have been beneficial by causing EXISTING parents, siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends and co-workers to give an extra effort to PRESERVE and IMPROVE their EXISTING relationships with KNOWN autistic people which are just TOO IMPORTANT to lose. However, people who have currently no known relationship with autistic people at all were also given a lots of reasons to not bother at all and avoid us in the first place. Just to be sure.

    During one of the pauses, I told her: “There is one way this lecture’s efficiency can be objectively measured. All of the attending people should meet again after a few months and tell us how many autistic people they’ve consequently employed, befriended, dated or slept with in the meantime. If the number is zero, then this conference has failed its purpose.”

    Whether by being wrongly constructed, or by being attended by wrong people, either way.

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  21. 7/28/2013 | 8:31 pm Permalink

    Rachel, Thank you for your perspective. I found your blog through Karla’s page. I am really saddened about TA. Several years ago, his book, The Complete Guide, changed all our lives for the better. I felt his perspective was so much more positive that almost any other books I had come across. But what Karla described, and seeing on her page how many other people are saying that this is not new, that they have tried to tell him his jokes are offensive, for years. Well, I’m just really sad about it. I hear so often how people on the spectrum are supposedly lacking empathy. Yet so much more often, it seems the NT’s are the ones who lack empathy. Only by calling out this behavior publicly will we have any hope to change it. Thank you for speaking out.

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